Friday, December 9, 2011

What Churches Can Learn from Occupy Wall Street

By Jeff Fulmer
Originally posted 12/8/12 at Faith Forward
Occupy Wall Street has quickly grown from a single protest at Zuccotti Park in New York to over 900 cities around the world.  There are several reasons why the Occupy Movement has experienced such exponential growth in only three months, but the primary one is that they boldly seized a cause that was crying out for a champion.   There was, and still is, a groundswell of people who desperately want to restore balance to a fundamentally unjust economic system.

While more Americans than ever slipped below the poverty line in 2011 (46.2 million), the wealthiest 1% now controls 40% of the nation’s wealth.   That kind of disparity is wrong by any standards, and is an injustice that falls squarely with the church’s domain.   Some pastors have been fighting the good fight for years; however, many are strangely silent when it comes to getting actively involved in shaping policies that help the sick, hungry, and poor (aka “the least of these.”)   Not wanting to create a riff in their congregations or upset contributors, they tend to shy away from the “controversial” issues.

2000 or so years ago, a radical preacher and healer spoke out against the powers of his day.  “They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” (Matthew 23:4)  Jesus was speaking about the Pharisees, but he could have easily been talking to business people who have exploited the public, as well as the politicians who protect them.  He also had some pretty harsh things to say about money and those who hoard it.  (Matthew 6: 24, Matthew 19:23, Luke 12: 13 – 21, Luke 16: 19-31)

Besides tapping into the discontent of many Americans, Occupy Wall Street is doing some other things churches would do well to emulate.  For instance, #OWS is very decentralized and democratic.   While they have organizers, they seem willing to put everything to a vote, including what and where to protest.   Listening to their members and empowering them to take up the banner in their own communities has helped the movement spread like wildfire.   And when the press and celebrities show up at their rallies, they are greeted without fanfare and treated like normal people.

While it often feels like Washington only listens to people who can afford lobbyists, church leaders can be just as guilty of cozying up to the rich and powerful.    “… they love the places of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted in the marketplace and to have men call them ‘Rabbi.’ (Matthew 23: 5 – 7)  Big denominational organizations pronounce official edicts on morality, and mega-churches put their charismatic preachers on pedestals.   These top-down hierarchies can often rob the church of the untapped potential in their pews.

From the beginning, #OWS has been fiercely anti-advertising and anti-consumerism.   Inspired by the protests taking place in Egypt, it was Adbusters who originally floated an email about a march on Wall Street.   (Adbusters produces ads that challenge misleading corporate messages).    For many of us, the notion of not selling out is appealing… After a lifetime of being told that happiness can be ours for the price of a cell phone or car, many are no longer buying the lies.

People are hungry for an alternative to the never-ending cycle of consumerism, and churches can draw a starker line between the love of God and love of the world.  Christmas is the most obvious way religion has been co-opted by capitalism, but money finds many more subtle ways to creep in and corrupt the most well-intentioned plans.   Jesus never seemed angrier than when he drove the moneychangers from the temple. (John 2:14 – 16) That’s a pretty strong message that God will not be bought.

Finally, Occupy Wall Street is using peaceful methods to protest the powers that be.   The fact that they have been evicted from various public areas only makes them more sympathetic.   And when they are willing to go to jail or endure physical hardship (such as the Marine, Scott Olson), it engenders respect.   This is essentially the same method that Martin Luther King and Mohandas Gandhi used to protest – both of whom were influenced by Christ and his peaceful (except for the moneychangers) ministry.

When was the last time Christians came together and linked arms to protest anything?   Many of us have missed meaningful opportunities to let our voices be heard.  While martyrdom isn’t required for most modern day believers, we are called to make sacrifices. “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Matthew 9:23)  Not only is speaking out being true to your convictions, it also offers a beacon of hope to others.   The world is attracted to people who are passionate enough to live out their beliefs in the open and out on the streets.

It can be dangerous to paint all of Wall Street with the same brush, just as the Tea Party does more harm by vilifying all things government.   While I’m reluctant to embrace everything about #OWS, I certainly hope they will bring about positives changes.   Even if I don’t Occupy Wall Street, or even my hometown of Nashville, there are endless opportunities to make a difference.   After all, as Christians, we have been called to occupy the nations and lead the way to a better, more just world.

Jeff Fulmer is the author of the book "Hometown Prophet."

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